Prelude.12 Follow-Up: An Interview with Chris Kondek
Responding to elements of this year’s Prelude Festival, particularly the “Future of the Cinema is the Stage” series, Kai Tuchmann talked to the performer and video artist Christopher Kondek, whose first permanent collaboration was with the Wooster Group in 1989.
Christopher Kondek worked with Wooster Group on Brace up!, an adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, then on Fish Story and The Emperor Jones. In the early days his official title was “light designer”–the term “video artist” had not yet been coined. In the Nineties, Kondek worked for Robert Wilson and Michael Nyman. He moved to Berlin in 1999, where he was involved in three productions at the Volksbühne theatre’s side venue in 2000/2001. Since 2003 Kondek has worked continuously with Stefan Pucher, for whom video is an important element of his productions. Othello was invited to the Berlin Theatertreffen festival in 2005, and The Tempest three years later. At the same time, Kondek–in his work as a director–explores in a series of his own projects how virtual stock exchange transactions and financial market laws can be depicted on stage. In 2005, his performance of Dead Cat Bounce, in which ticket revenues are gambled on the stock exchange while the show is ongoing, received two prizes at the 6th Festival of Politics in Free Theatre (the ZDF-Theaterkanal award and the Goethe-Institut award) and was invited to numerous guest performances in Germany and abroad. In 2011 the production Money – It came from outer Space wins the Prize of the Goethe-Institut at the eighth “Festival Politik im Freien Theater”.
In Money – It came from outer space you are using classic science fiction movies like The Blob or Invasion of the Body-Snatchers in order to describe the alienation of our lives, which was inaugurated by the economy of money. Why have you decided to choose cinema as a matrix for this performance?
Well, in a certain way the cinema chose us. The concept, “Money is an Alien”, popped into my head fully formed one day. But of course that concept is completely based/built on a long history of ingested films. After all the only aliens we know are the ones that come from movies. The sci-fi films we watched function for us like fossils. We take them not so much as stories on film, but as petrified chunks of the real world that have somehow been misplaced or lost and have only now been dug up. And so we could approach every film as having a secret for us. For us non-economist to make a piece about money based purely on what economists say would have been too hard and at the same time pointless. But once we dug up this rich, complicated world of fossil films ways to talk about money became clear.
A different kind of answer: Films provide a language which one can appropriate in the theatre. But it is always a foreign language, one that doesn’t quite fit. One that the theatre can only clumsily re create and this is what makes the interest.
And I think there is a bit of dialectical play here in using cinema in theatre. Just as there is an old prejudice that French is the language of romance, we believe that film is somehow a more real language while theatre is fake. Of course theatre in its actuality is much more real, much more there than film. When theatre incorporates film it is playing various reality effects against each other. In “Money” the video cycles from old film clips, to straightforward talking head interviews, to live re created scenes from alien films, to economic graphs, I think it is this multiplication of levels that theatre takes advantage of when it uses media. It is this fluid, fast, continuous multiplication of levels that gives theatre a particular kind of richness that cinema, already sure of its “reality”, misses.
The dramaturgy of Money takes its cue from the dramaturgy of these movies. In how far has the specific visual language of science fiction film influenced your production as well?
From the start I was interested in a peculiar design aspect of aliens. There has always been a love of the organic in aliens movies and especially of plants, and plant like things. The “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is the best but not the only example. This is the reason for the greenhouse on stage. This idea of something that grows and grows mindlessly, (or not to offend plant freaks, grows with a mind we can’t understand). Plants are pure life. Just as Aliens are, a pure evil will to live. The other visual element I wanted to have from the start was the chest exploding scene from the first Alien film. Scary in the film, pure silly trash in the theatre. Then we took a cue from the Susan Sontag essay “Imagination of Disaster”, there she diagrams the basic structure of Alien Films, and points out that there is always a scene where they get a bit of an Alien back to the Lab and do some experiments on it. We decided to do an experiment on a Fifty Euro bill. We wanted to cut it open to see what makes it worth fifty euros. We slice open the bill and it starts to bleed. This had for us a connection to the John Carpenter remake of “The Thing”.
In Money-It came from outer Space you are focussing the development of economic theories. Since Adam Smith these theories have propagated the idea of balance. This idea has been interrupted by the practices of credit and money trading. Especially Nixon`s breach with the Bretton Woods System, i.e., the abolition of an established system of convertible currencies and a fix gold-dollar relation, has turned paper money into a substitute for value and into a document of the absence of value as well. Do you think that there is a deeper connection between this specific circulation of money and the circulation of images and representations in general?
Interesting question. Working from the end a similarity is clear: there are incredible flows of money circulating, and incredible streams of images, and the problem with both is that they don’t seem to have a truth value. That is to say that fiat money is created without any necessary connection to some economic value and hence could be “worth” anything. Images also seem to spread without anyone knowing if they represent any actual thing. Both money and images want us to believe in them. To take them, if you will, at face value. The question is can the money effect and the image effect both be tied to the same cause. I’d like to say that our digital world has given us such an abstract extended reach that its no longer possible to really have contact to anything now. But then I remember that people have been complaining about images and money for thousands of years. So there may be a connection, but its nothing new.
Especially regarding the usage of cinema in “Money” could you comment on one of the topics of this year’s Prelude Festival: “The Future of the Cinema is the Stage”
A large part of what I do is make video for other people theatre pieces and one thing I’ve become very aware of is how an audience changes the way it watches, when a video comes on in the theatre. One watches a theatre piece more actively, I imagine that’s because it is a thing really happening there, a film is always in a sense watched passively, because it is an image presented to you. The worst uses of film in theatre are when a screen comes down and simple narrative film is shown. Even if the film is good you can feel the energy being sucked out of the room. Better uses of video in theatre give you this feeling that the film there is also happening in the way that the theatre piece is happening. Perhaps its through interaction with performers, or perhaps it’s a complication in the film itself where you become aware of more than what is shown but how it came to be there. In any case it is this step from just “showing a film about x” to “an event x that includes film material y is trying to happen” that seems to me the most important thing.
Has the shift from analogue (re)produced images to digital (re)produced images in mass media influenced your aesthetic approach?
I find myself constantly coming back to low tech ways of making images. But that’s usually only after having wasted a lot of time looking for digital solutions. No doubt the round trip adds something, I am not sure what. One effect of digital images, which makes them easily reproducible is that now everything has been seen, all images you make are in some way always a quote of something else. Or perhaps a mixture of quotes. And so you can get stuck just repeating stuff, perhaps adding a little irony or kitsch here, or removing a little there. My general strategy now is to have digital fantasies but make them analogue.